Iranian Seizure of Royal Navy Personnel

Part of Oral Answers to Questions — Prime Minister – in the House of Commons at 12:33 pm on 28th March 2007.

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Photo of William Hague William Hague Shadow Secretary of State (Foreign Affairs) 12:33 pm, 28th March 2007

I thank the Foreign Secretary for her statement. When she demands the safe and swift return of our Royal Navy personnel, she has the united support of the House. We support the Government in the firm but measured approach that they have adopted so far, as well as the announcement that she has just made about the freezing of other bilateral business.

Clearly the seizure of our personnel was unjustified, and the evidence that the Foreign Secretary and the Ministry of Defence have presented shatters the credibility of any claim that our personnel were operating in Iranian waters. The Government are right to use every diplomatic channel, and to have avoided early escalation of the matter beyond the publication of the evidence and what she has said in her statement. If this turns into a protracted dispute, this country is placed in the strongest moral and legal position by having approached the issue in this way. Is it not vital for Iran to understand that such actions only damage its standing in international opinion? This country's response must be one that increases its international support.

I commend our forces for the difficult and dangerous tasks that they are undertaking in Iraq and its territorial waters, under a clear UN mandate, and in support of the stability of that country. I also welcome the Government's action to keep the families of those involved—who are very much in our thoughts, as the Foreign Secretary has said—fully informed.

Can the Foreign Secretary say what justification was given by the Iranian ambassador or Foreign Minister for their failure to provide consular access to our personnel, or to reveal their location? Is it not unacceptable that British officials have not been given access to them? Has she received any indication of when that will finally take place? Have the Government managed to ascertain exactly who is believed to be holding them in custody? In their communications with the Iranian authorities, will the Government make it absolutely clear that any repeat of the mistreatment experienced by the British marines held by Iran in 2004 will be viewed with the utmost seriousness in this country?

The Government will be aware of speculation that some in Iran view the detention of British personnel as an asset that can be traded in for concessions. Have any demands been made by Iran—the Foreign Secretary did not mention any in her statement—in relation to their capture?

Can the Foreign Secretary indicate what effect, if any, the incident has had on the ability of British naval forces to continue to operate in Iraqi waters? On the rules of engagement, will she and the Defence Secretary be able to assure the House that any changes requested by those commanding our forces will be granted?

Three years ago, eight British personnel were seized by Iran from the Shatt al-Arab on the ground that they had violated Iranian waters. Will the Foreign Secretary say what conclusions were drawn from that experience? In particular, was any understanding sought with Iran, or offered by it, about the waters in which British naval forces operate, and about the fact that such operations pose no threat to the Iranian state? Will the Ministry of Defence look again at its configuration of forces in the area, so that the forces undertaking these tasks are fully protected, or better protected, or better able to deter interference with their activities?

We support what the Prime Minister has said about British efforts moving into a different phase. If agreement to release the personnel is not forthcoming in the coming days, will not the correct way to pursue their release be multilateral and through the UN, since Britain is operating under a UN mandate? Will the Government take all necessary steps to ensure that if the situation endures we will have the maximum support from the UN Security Council and the EU, which has very extensive trading and financial links with Iran and our many friends in the region? In that way, the greatest possible degree of international unity can be brought to bear.

Finally, the international effort to convince the Iranian Government to suspend their nuclear programme and return to negotiations passed an important milestone on Saturday, with the agreement of a Security Council resolution widening UN sanctions against Iran. Will the Foreign Secretary assure the House that that separate matter will in no way weaken our resolve, or that of other nations, to enforce those UN sanctions, so that nuclear proliferation in the middle east can be resisted?

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William John Parsons
Posted on 31 Mar 2007 12:39 pm (Report this annotation)

Dear William, (great name at least we have that in common).
Where does one start with this debacle, why was HMS Cornwall not aware of the approach of these pirates. The should have been, they are supposed to have the most up to date RADAR, not that they needed it, as the horizon to the mark 1 eyeball is only 14 miles away. Therefore the look outs should have seen the approaching craft and taken appropiate measures. That is if they had lookouts posted, there are more questions to be answered by the senior officers in charge of this affair than by the Iranians. Have the political considerations hamstrung the captain of this ship that he has to allow the infringement of international law and the welfare of his sailors fall by the wayside? Does he have to ring someone up to fire on pirates. Landsakes man there was an Admiral on board didn't he have the authority to say take the pirates out. If we are in a situation like these guys out there, then they must have the freedom to act as they think fit. If we don't give them this freedom why have we given them the rank, and indeed the salary for taking on that sort of responsibility. These are fundamental questions that are being overshadowed by the hostages taken by a rogue state. The service people in conflict situations must be assured that the actions they take if justified by the intelligence that they have at hand, will be supported by the political masters without fear of risking their careers, and they will not be sacrificed on the altar of political expediency. I think these are some of the veiws that should be aired and discussed.